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Emerging Automotive Professional: Toyota’s Vanessa Antar

Connect with Vanessa on LinkedIn. 


Getting into Automotive 

What inspired you to go into the automotive and mobility field?  

After completing two internships/co-op terms with Toyota I knew right away I wanted to be in research and development (R&D) at Toyota. My second co-op term exposed me to the world of design, and I could not wait to graduate so I could dive right in.

Did you grow up with family members in the automotive industry?  

Growing up, I was always surrounded by my uncles who have a huge passion for cars, but I had no idea back then that this was the industry I was going to end up in. I honestly didn’t know until I tried it. This is why I highly recommend getting internship opportunities as soon as possible so you can get a feel for the kind of work you would be doing after graduating.

Growing up, what was your impression of the automotive industry? How would you have described the industry? 

I grew up outside of the U.S., so I had a completely different image of the automotive industry. At the time, it felt like such an unattainable world and I didn’t even think I would be able to make it there. My country didn’t have automotive opportunities, so it was honestly not on my horizon until I got into college in the U.S.

What college did you attend, what was your major, and why did you choose that path?   

I attended the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago where I majored in mechanical engineering. I always loved math and physics growing up so becoming an engineer was a no brainer to me when I was applying for college. I then went through the process of elimination when it came to which kind of engineering I wanted to study. I decided to go with mechanical engineering due to the broad scope. You can really end up in any industry you want which is great for someone who didn’t have a clear image of what she wanted to do after graduation. I didn’t know I was going to end up in automotive until I did my first co-op/internship at Toyota which was a huge turning point during my undergraduate time.


Automotive Career: Then and Now 

What opportunities did you have in college that allowed you to explore or start your career in automotive, including any co-ops or internships?  

In college, I was very involved in organizations like the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), where I had the opportunity to attend conferences that hosted career fairs. Through networking and career fairs I was able to land my first internship/co-op at Toyota and kick start my automotive career. My university’s career fairs didn’t have a lot of companies looking for mechanical engineers so attending these big conference career fairs had a huge impact on my career.

What is your role now? 

I am a design engineer at Toyota in the Body Design division in the Research and Development Headquarters in Michigan. I’ve been in body design for six years now.

What projects and programs do you work on? 

I’ve been designing and engineering parts and sub-assemblies for upcoming vehicles. For example, if you look at recent Tacoma, you will see the radiator grilles that I designed (this was my first project). I now work on the body of the trucks, which is the structure that protects occupants during vehicle crashes.

Describe a typical day.  

There’s no typical day for me but I will say working on a project in design is a two-to-three-year commitment. Our responsibility is to take styling data prepared by our design studio and turn it into an engineered sub-system of parts. We start our design work by gathering all the inputs and targets we need to incorporate. We then go through iterations of feedback from all stakeholders and keep evolving our design until we reach production-level data that satisfies all requirements from every stakeholder. Once parts go into production, we go through multiple vehicle builds where everything comes together on actual vehicles. This phase is very important to confirm all design intents and quickly resolve any issues that come up before the vehicle goes into mass production. Working with so many hardworking, dedicated, and smart people from all different divisions is one of the best parts of my job. We are all working together as one team with one goal which is to provide the customer the best product possible. I’m always in awe of what it takes to design and build a car.

This entire design process requires many skills on daily basis, including:

  • Maintaining good communication skills and being proactive about resolving issues to make sure we meet all necessary targets by the set deadlines.
  • Collaborating with many other groups (other design groups, evaluation groups for safety/crash testing, suppliers, manufacturing, etc.).
  • Reporting engineering and technical issues to upper management to get decisions and agreement on certain directions (here is where you can work on your presentation, public speaking, and communication skills).
  • Working in design also requires a lot of computer aided design (CAD) work from making section studies and 3D data to technical drawings.

All these skills can be learned through project experience but are at the core of every design job.

Where do you see yourself in five years?  

I love growing my technical skills and design capabilities but in five years I want to be more on the project management side.


Advice for Young Students 

Knowing what you know now, if you could give your younger self one tip or piece of advice, what would it be?  

It’s okay for work to be your number one priority, but don’t forget to live your life and make time for the important people in your life.

What advice do you have for high school students who are interested in automotive, but unsure if it’s the career for them? 

If possible, try to shadow an engineer at an automotive company or at least set up a virtual meet up. Ask as many questions as possible and be curious (there’s no right or wrong question)! If you don’t know where to start, listen to the engineer’s story and details about their careers.

There are so many different jobs you can have in automotive so getting internships throughout your time in college is very important to help you understand if that environment is a good fit for you. I had the amazing opportunity of hosting a high school student who was interested in automotive but wasn’t 100% sure if it was the right fit for her. We got to spend a day talking all about design and what it’s like to be an engineer in automotive. She is now a sophomore pursuing her degree in mechanical engineering and will be looking for opportunities in automotive.

What was the best piece of advice you were ever given?  

I’ve been given MANY but here are the best:

  • Think of your career as a marathon, not a race.
  • To be successful you need to be like the “energizer bunny” because you will fail at times, but you will bounce back.
  • There are two main currencies that will drive your career: your performance and your relationships and connections.
  • Innovation isn’t always creating something brand new. It’s about applying something that already exists in a brand-new way.
  • Don’t communicate to inform, communicate to influence.

What do you love about working in the automotive industry (and specifically the automotive industry in Michigan)?  

What I love the most is how rewarding it feels to see your designs on actual vehicles on the road. Every vehicle that I worked on that leaves the dealership will have a bunch of parts that I designed. This makes all the hard work and long hours worth it! I also feel very proud to be a female in a male-dominated industry and would love to encourage more girls to pursue careers in STEM and join me on this journey.

Do you participate in any organizations outside of work? Or have any hobbies (unrelated to automotive)? Do you feel the work-life balance in the auto industry allows you to continue these passions?  

I have many hobbies and interests outside of work like powerlifting, being a plant mom, traveling, brewing craft coffee, and all things fashion. Work is currently my number one priority, and the hours tend to be long especially around deadlines, however, this teaches me to appreciate the down time I have. It’s important to make time for our hobbies because work doesn’t end. There’s always more work that we can be doing but in order to produce our best output it’s on us to set those boundaries and tend to the things we care about outside of work and create some sort of balance.

Someone I look up to at work once told me we have three main things we give our energy to: work, relationships (parents, family, partners, etc.), and ourselves. We can only focus on two of these three at a time, so one of them will fall behind. This balance needs to shift based on current priorities and what needs more of our time versus what can be placed on hold for a bit.